I saw love in a hard place

Brian Turner at the Scott Clinic

One of the privileges of my job, as Director of The Reader Organisation, is  that I get to see literature doing its thing in places where it really needs to be, and that’s always a powerful experience.

The canteen of Mersey Care NHS Trust’s  medium-secure Scott Clinic isn’t your run-of-the-mill venue for a  literary reading, and neither is the deep electro-static hum of the massive soft drink vending machine the usual backdrop to a reading by US Army veteran and award-winning poet, Brian Turner. The very calm, very kind staff member who had shepherded us through the double entrance and locked our  phones in  the security lockers, given us a  briefing and escorted us to the toilets, didn’t think it could be turned off, but she had set out a table with  tea and coffee for us all, and as a dozen or so men and a half a dozen women arranged their institutional chairs in a rough circle  on Wednesday 2 May, I found myself once more  shaken by the power of  what I have to call love, as it translates itself into professional care – a transformation I have often witnessed in difficult situations, where ‘care’ is hard to give, and sometimes calls up all that is  giving in a human. In the hardest places, I have witnessed this and it always feels like a miracle, as well as simply what is required.

As well as what there was in the room of this quality, Brian Turner  had  brought his own with him,  in truckloads.

He was like a guy sitting next to you in a pub, at a football match. An ordinary guy, in his green sweater, like a man in the queue in a hardware shop, with none of the glamour of Great Artist  draped across his broad shoulders. He was simply a man, human among humans, and from the moment he entered the room, shaking hands, willing to listen  as much as to read, in conversation more than in performance. Yet how powerful the poems as he read them, in this place where very little speaks of ‘poetry’, and the very curtains, decent as they are,  shriek ‘institution’.

To begin, and why not start with this, Brian reads a poem (sorry, can’t quote it as I am writing without the books beside me) about paradise, and what is left when paradise is  ( he gestures heavenwards) all up there. Here we  sit, in the  leavings. I am conscious that there is not much of paradise in this room. Everyone listens  intently, some with engaged concentrated expressions while others, behind wall-faces,  seem to listen in private, or perhaps not to listen at all. One man  appears not to respond in any way. But the jumpy guy beside me talking nonstop under his breath  increasingly  listens, moving, tapping, containing his energy, asks  lots of questions in the quietest voice, and Brian has hearing loss, and there is a lot of repeating for  reasons on both damaged sides. One women leans forward,connecting, but modest too, sorry for taking up time, and asks the biggest, most real questions I’ve heard in a poetry reading. ‘What do you believe is left if Paradise is  taken up there?’

Brian recites, thrumming the still air with one musical hand, a man playing the  universal air, The Hurt Locker. ‘Nothing but hurt left here./Nothing but bullets and pain/and the bled-out slumping/and all the fucks and goddamns/and Jesus Christs of the wounded./Nothing left here but the hurt.’

The vending machine seems silenced. We are together. He is talking to us of our our terrible experiences as well as his own. We all know it. The jumpy guy sitting to my left, the guy who can’t stop talking, stops talking. We listen together. ‘Believe it when you see it./Believe it when a twelve-year-old/rolls a grenade into the room.’

The woman with the massively intelligent questions sits back as if satisfied.
Behind me the Occupational Therapist who has brought us here is also stilled, as if content. Brian is still saying the  poem, his right hand, hand of bass guitar player, strumming the stilled air into life. ‘Or when a sniper/punches a hole/deep into someone’s skull.’
We are doing something extraordinary together here.
This is  The Reader Organisation, Mersey Care and Writing on The Wall Festival working together to bring poetry to places  it  doesn’t usually visit. And yet,  Brian has shown us, it was there all along if we could have  been stilled to feel it.

‘Open the hurt locker and learn/how rough men come hunting for souls.’

During the last poem, along one line I cannot now recall,  the man across  the circle from Brian, who has remained impassive throughout, is moved. A half smile flows like a fast shadow of light across his face. You could miss it easily. But some thing  happened.

Thanks  to all concerned

See Brian reading here

Books for Women #7 Shakespeare (part 1: Sonnet 29)

Shakespeare sonnet number 29

No one would link a Shakespeare sonnet with Black Beauty, would they ?

But I must mention Black Beauty  because I had seen one the brain/psych people I follow on Twitter mention it. Professor Sophie Scott ( @sophiescott)  tweeted ‘ aged 7/8 I used to  read Black Beauty and work myself into hysterics…’

Of course! Many readers will have had the experience reading Black Beauty, of totally identifying one’s inner being with a horse! That makes me think about what ‘identifying’ is –  it is not to  do, in many respects with  gender, class, or even species. So why am I  writing about  books to make a woman?

Leaving that question for another day, as I am rushing out to listen to Brian Turner reading at the Scott Clinic, let me introduce my first piece of Shakespeare text into the list. You can identify with a horse? Easy enough then to make the emotional link with a C17 man…

I found this poem as a teenager who literally couldn’t sit still in an English class (always nipping out for a smoke)  through the 1971 film ‘Fortune and Men’s Eyes’ which I saw in a cinema in Brighton on one of my runaway trips. No – not running away, this was when I had  finally officially ‘left home’. I hitched down the A41 to Brighton with my boyfriend Nick. We  lived in a squat and worked in cafes.   I’d be 16. Don’t remember the film very much  – homosexuality in a prison?  – but I remember  crying in the cinema. At the end of the film, up rolled the words of the Shakespeare sonnet ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ – or did I go away and look it up?


When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

For a long time  the poem  didn’t mean much to me, but all the same I loved it, and I  learned it off by heart and could recite it. Which begs the question, if I didn’t ‘understand’ it, what was it that  I loved? As with ‘America’, there were particular lines that got me, and hurt, and  that was partly what I liked;

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate…

Certain words (‘ disgrace’ ‘alone’ ‘outcast’ ‘deaf heaven’ ‘fate’ ) carried the emotional charge I sought. I  ‘identified’ with or felt those words or felt their feelings. Was I in pain? Not really, not consciously, I was just a very stroppy, uncontained teenager. In retrospect? Perhaps the poem held my consciousness for me?

And it also contained a promise, a possible future.’For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings/That then I scorn to change my state with kings.’ One day, I could feel,  that might come to me – Shakespeare was laying down a possible pattern, and in a form I could know through the feeling of words, and remember.

Amazing technology.